This weekend, after a delicious dinner, some friends and I visited a rooftop drinking spot in Osu. As I slowly drove my motocycle into the crowded parking lot, a man reached out, put his hand on my leg, and slid his hand up my skirt as I went by on the moto. It took me a moment to register what had happened, and by that time, I had passed the group of men, and wasn’t even sure who had done it. After fuming for several minutes, I joined my friends, had a double whiskey, and did my best to forget about the incident and enjoy the rest of the night.
As I write this, several days later, I am still furious—furious with the man, but more furious with myself for failing to give the man any disincentive to repeat his actions. The options were many: yell at the man; report him to the police; hit him; run over his foot with my moto; or in my most vengeful fantasy, castrate him with my moto keys. Why didn’t I do any of these things? It wasn’t that I am incapable of standing up for myself. For the most part, it was simply because I wasn’t quick enough to react, but riding away had its advantages: I wasn’t physically hurt, I got out of a potentially harmful situation quickly, none of my friends had to be involved in a mess, and I was able to move on and continue my night. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome had I chosen to confront the man—but at what cost did this efficient short-term result come? What does it take to prevent this type of behavior?
Minor physical assault and sexual harassment is not uncommon in Accra. My recent experiences include:
· A man grabbing me around the waste and pull me away from my friends to try to get him to dance with me at an outdoor dance spot. I peeled him off of me and started yelling at him; another Ghanaian intervened and convinced him to leave us alone.
· A man repeatedly came up to my friends and me in a dance club and rubbed against us, even though we were not dancing. After asking him three times to stop, I told him to “F-k off” and shoved him. He drunkenly fell on the ground and then went away.
· A man on the street grabbed my hand as I was walking by him one evening and would not let go. I dug my keys into his wrist as I twisted my hand free. He let me go on my way.
Let’s be frank—women face these types of encounters everywhere. I have a close friend in New York for whom catcalls are a humiliating but regular part of her daily commute. She has experimented with every type of reaction I can think of: anger, humor, honest conversation, and simply ignoring it. Nothing seems to make a difference. Is a man with a key gouge on his wrist less likely to try to grab a woman’s arm than one who got away unscathed?
The truth is, I don’t think any reaction from a victim of harassment is enough disincentive to put a stop to this behavior. To be an effective deterrent, punishment must come from broad society. Men who sit on steps and catcall in New York City should face the disapproval of the grandmother next door and the scorn of the respectful men who pass by and see them as the boys they are. Men who assault women in Accra bars and clubs should be unwelcome in those spots, and those who grab women on the streets should be ostracized by other vendors there, who face lost business when women avoid those spots. In some cases, this happens. Too often, it doesn't. As long society fails to punish men for this behavior, a they will continue to bet that victims won't punish them either.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.